This article was published on: 19/9/2010
“If one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time, insight into an understanding of many things.” – Vincent Van Gogh
Mind, body and spirit; our heroes are masters of at least one. Our pursuit of mastery mirrors our collective will to control the big bad universe around us. We admire those who exhibit an abundance of this control. But it’s natural for us all to seek a piece of the pie ourselves. We all want to take an element of control over our lives. We all want to make our mark in the world.
In Raph Koster’s book ‘The Theory of Fun’ he states how human beings “crave predictability”. Unpredictable things threaten our survival and unsettle us. So it is in our nature to seek control over the world around us. We even place controls over our own nature through laws, order and governance. But the great dichotomy of man is that we need unpredictability to learn more about ourselves. We need a bit of chaos to stir things up, to see how far the rabbit hole goes. Only through exploring the extremities of the human condition can we expand our horizons. But exploring your extremities in society is one sure-fire way to close your horizons quite significantly. So we do so in a controlled way through science, art, literature, film and games. That is our way of learning new things, where it is safe and where unpredictability is welcomed.
The best games (or anything for that matter) have depth that reveal further layers of complexity the more we master. Also in ‘The Theory of Fun’ Raph states: “The destiny of games is to become boring, not to be fun”. The fun part is derived from overcoming challenges and finding new lessons. It is the role of mastery to exhaust them. As limited systems ultimately all games will be wrung dry (the best ones appear inexhaustible). But the lessons learnt from mastering them further enrich us. Playing games equip us for reality. Just watch lion cub’s play-fighting to see this in action. Mastery of a game gives us advantages and insight that are very useful in the real world. By day a Producer and by night avid Starcraft II fan – Jacob Karsemeyer certainly seems to think so too.
In his book ‘Outliers’ Malcolm Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin: “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything. [..] It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to achieve true mastery”.
Sounds like a lot of hard work doesn’t it? Society today is mesmerised by short-term gain. The long-term is far away and neither immediate nor exciting. The problem with mastery is that it sits in the long-term. Games (and other mediums) offer a compelling wrapper for us to overcome this. They reward us with a sense of achievement and contain points systems and level structures to show our progress. Games document our path to mastery. A well structured sense of progression is critical in game design. Good games have intrinsic reward systems where the advantages to mastery of the activity are constantly reinforced.
Mastery is important because it answers the questions we ask of ourselves. Mastering a subject or skill elevates your value in society because it benefits us all. On the path to enlightenment mastery is our torch. So it’s important that scientists, game designers, directors, writers and artists keep asking new questions of us. Only through doing this will we find more answers. They’re both equally important. We, the creators of questions, have a solemn duty to uphold. As do masters, to keep pushing, to keep surprising, to keep inspiring.